When I started writing Death and the Mason Jar, I had four primary characters around whom the story revolved. The cast of characters, as well as minor ones, came from all over the globe, as would be necessary in a book that deals with death and the imaginings of what comes next. It’s funny and dark, and poignant at times. I love this story more than I’ve ever loved any other (although I think I say that a lot.)
In the course of the story, the characters brush across old gods and folklore–who also need a place to go when they’ve been forgotten, the only true death of such beings–and one of them was a Jewish trickster character that I loved so much, he ended up being a character.
This hasn’t sat well in my writerly brain.
I’m big on diversity in my work. I don’t want everyone to be generic, or Italian/JerseyGirl/Connecticut housewife. As long as I’m not appropriating a culture, writing everyone as people, not as “insert ethnicity/ culture here,” I feel like I’m good. But I moved from writing a piece of folklore personified to a real being with a past and a motive and complicated culture. Long before the recent RWA and American Dirt fiascoes, this character has been making me squirm. Since these events, I’ve thought even harder about him, about his evolved place in my story. I’ve even dug in my heels (as some writer friends and my daughters can attest to) and declared I wasn’t changing my story to suit this uproar.
But I’m changing my story. My character. Not because I fear the uproar, but because I agree with it wholeheartedly, and have from the moment my character stopped being a folktale and became human. It took all that’s been happening–and will continue to happen, I hope–to push me into truly seeing it.
I’m keeping the character’s basics, and changing his ethnicity to one more in keeping with my own background. The result excites me entirely, because I can keep his backstory, his motives, his actions, but now they have more depth, because it will go from the poignantly obvious to the poignant question. The expected unexpected, as Agent-of-wonder Janna taught me. What had sadly become a caricature of someone I could never have done justice to is suddenly, and with only a few changed details, real and whole and entirely right.
Everyone else stays the same. Roland Nader, Emmet Bautista, Maria Violetta Teresa Abundante. And Aggie, with her mason jar. Writing them isn’t appropriating a culture or events I have no real experience to write authentically. They’re right. Absolutely.
The evolution of this book has been nothing short of astounding for me. It frustrates and thrills and teaches me something new on a(n almost) daily basis. I’ve said it to others and I’ll say it right here–if this one doesn’t top The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) I don’t think anything ever will. (Though I think I might say that a lot, too.)